Monday, June 30, 2008

the cave - an allegory entirely unlike Plato's

We're back from our jaunt to Bear Lake. Yes, I had an intense, week-long writer's conference followed immediately by a family trip and now I'm faced with the laundry and teaching-issues backlog to prove it. I have a whole list of things to write about and wish I had more time today to devote to such lovely tasks as writing, but in the meantime, here's one simple thought I had this weekend while spelunking (or rather walking up and down conveniently widened corridors and metal stairs) in the Minnetonka cave near St. Charles Idaho.

You know when you go on a tour to a commercialized cave and the guide has this memorized speech to give you about the different formations? You know how she tells you that this rock is Kermit the Frog and over here is Miss Piggy's tail and if you shine the light just right on this huge slab over here you can make out the face of Abraham Lincoln? I was thinking about how we go along with this scenario so willingly. How we wait for her to tell us exactly what we're supposed to see in the limestone because someone before us has decided what it all means and heaven forbid we decide that we don't think that looks at all like a pig's tail and in fact we're sure it is one of those curly fries you can get at Arby's only without the extra dusting of paprika?

This is the challenge I face with some of my students. They're waiting for me to be the tour guide. They're used to being told what art means by someone who's been there before and knows where to shine the flashlight. They have a hard time accepting the fact that we're looking at independent objects, things that have no absolute labels stamped on them in a secret code that only the fully trained park rangers/teachers can decode. Sure, each work of art is a reflection of the artist who produced it and the cultural values behind that artist, but it can also be about a million things more. It's my job to convince my students that I can only teach them how to study art, I can't (or at least I shouldn't) compound the myth that they have to wait for the proper interpretation before they can make their own judgments. I can (and should) let them experience that liberating feeling you get when you realize that the artist is not the only creative force in the life of an artwork. It takes creativity to decide for yourself what you see in the stalactites. Or maybe, you can even just see the stalactites for what they are: art for art's sake. They serve no real purpose, no practical function. They don't have to mean anything. They are simply beautiful--surprising twists of life and color and texture in an otherwise ordinary slice of earth.


Annette Lyon said...

I think I like your allegory a bit better than Plato's. :)

Of course *some* guidance at first is very helpful for beginning students so they have a clue about the kinds of things some people do look at, various periods and styles, and such. THEN letting them find their own eyes. I imagine it's crossing from one to the other that's the tricky part.

Marni Hall said...

I always hated it when this certain AP Englighs teacher of mine thought it was her way or the highway, no other interpretation necessary or wanted. Good to keep things open and encourage.

On the flip side, I started a book a few weeks ago that had a couple lines in the first few pages that I just love, and I couldn't get past them for several days because I really wanted the story to build on the meaning I found in them and was worried that it wouldn't. So far it hasn't, but the book isn't done yet. And a good interpreter can find support if she needs to... whether their high school English teacher cares to hear it or not. :)

Kimberly said...

Fascinating insight.

And you're a good deal more interesting than Plato. I may be prejudiced though.

Tangent Woman said...

Bless you for not only allowing but encouraging students to develop their own interpretations about art. I have sat through endless classes where the teacher would ask us what something meant and then make us feel like idiots if we didn't give the answer he/she had decided on.
One of the only original peices of art I own is one I bought from a student art show. The symbolism in it struck such a chord with me- I couldn't stop staring at it. When I talked to the student about it later and expressed my ideas - he said "Oh, I never thought of it that way. I was just drawing."